Over the past seven months, I’ve been exploring the Values in Action (VIA) character strengths through the lens of Christian faith and how they are all examples of the kind of “good fruit” our lives are called to produce. The goal of the series has been to broaden our perspective on what a good life looks like, since Jesus taught that our lives — and Truth itself — are to be judged based on the quality of the fruit we bear: “Every good tree produces good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit…. Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7.17ff).
Something that stood out to me during these months has been how many character strengths are interconnected: how they serve to reinforce each other, or rein each other in, as needed. Leadership requires not only zest, judgment, and perspective to be strong and healthy, but also social intelligence, humility, and kindness. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians similarly remind us that we can have all the knowledge in the world or the greatest gifts of insight and perspective, or have the most all-consuming mystical experiences of awe and wonder, and yet still have nothing if these are not grounded in love.
This deeply interconnected, mutually-reinforcing and tempering web of character strengths brings to mind another metaphor from the natural world: the forest.
If you think I’ve been thinking in forest analogies a lot lately, you’re not wrong. But I’ve come to it honestly. After a rather mystical encounter with a tree while on a run last Summer, I’ve been experiencing what I jokingly call my “tree renaissance.” During this past year I’ve been blown away by the things scientists are learning (or re-learning) about trees: that they use their interconnected root systems to communicate with each other and exchange food with one another; that entire forests can be chemically linked through cast networks of fungi; and that trees can send smells to each other warning of danger.* Perhaps most shocking of all, it seems that trees regulate their levels of growth “in conversation with” their neighbours: Far from manifesting Survival of the Fittest in an aggressive fight to be the biggest, tallest tree in the forest, trees seem to have evolved to work together with their neighbours, recognizing that a densely packed copse of trees of similar size and strength is healthier and safer than allowing the weaker to die in service to the strongest, who would then be more exposed to dangerous weather and infestations.
I really like this image for how we can use character strengths well in our life. If we are strong in perspective and fairness, we can use those strengths to support forgiveness. Or, if our curiosity is prone to get the best of us, hurting our relationships through nosiness and imposing ourselves where we don’t belong, we can temper its excesses through social intelligence and self-regulation. The stronger trees in our forest of character can provide strength to the weaker ones, and the forest as a whole can keep the stronger ones from getting out of hand.
One thing that is so helpful about this metaphor is that what works within us works just as well among us too: Each of us with our unique combination of strengths and weaknesses acts in community to both lift each other up and rub off each other’s rough edges. It’s a beautiful, challenging life. And I believe it is the kind of life Jesus was talking about when he said “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10). An abundant life isn’t about being rich in things, but about being rich in fruit, which is always given for the sake of others.
And so, as this series on good fruit draws to a close, let us, echoing the beautiful words of Psalm 1, commit and commend ourselves and each other to live
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.”
*For an accessible but well-cited summary of these learnings, see Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees.